P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City during the period just after the Civil War and President Lincoln's assassination is the setting of this first novel by Ellen Bryson.
Barnum has hired a menagerie of what he calls human curiosities, including Emma, a giant, Alley, the strongman, Ricardo The Man of Rubber, the clownish and deformed Zippy, Matina The Fat Lady, and the protagonist Bartholomew Fortuno, The World's Thinnest Man. All of these people feel lucky to be housed in this museum, having been mistreated by various circus owners.
When we first meet Bartholomew or "Barthy," as his close friend Matina calls him, he sees himself as one who was born with a special gift. He's a self-proclaimed prodigy with something to teach others and has the power to make others think about their own humanity. His life evolves around the museum and he shows no interest in moving around in the outside world. In fact, Bartholomew hates stepping outside the museum's confines and feels privileged to be in such rare company. In Bartholomew's mind, there are true prodiges and then there are gaffs, or people who are not really gifted, but just tricksters.
But then, one night, Bartholomew witnesses the arrival of a new, mysterious woman. She is under the cover of a veil and clearly being sheltered and hidden by Barnum. Bartholomew is fascinated and determined to find out more about Barnum's new acquisition.
It doesn't take long for Bartholomew to encounter this woman, Iell Adams, a woman with a beautiful figure and a thick, flowing, luxurious beard. And it doesn't take long for him to fall in love with her. Though Bartholomew had always seen himself as the thought-provoker, it is Iell who forces him to take a different look at himself. Does he really need to be in a museum, is he really meant to be a curiosity? Completely smitten with Iell, he agrees to run an errand for her, despite his fear and hatred of the outside world. This errand takes him to a Chinese herbalist, who hands him a package for Iell and then insists that he take something for himself as well, a strange-looking root.
At first, Bartholomew is repulsed by this gift, but something, perhaps curiosity, compels him to take a bite. The herbalist had told him that it would bring out his true self, and it does have an immediate effect on him.
Bartholomew begins to dream of leaving the museum and taking the lovely Iell with him. After all, she has pointed out to him that he has actually chosen to live as a curiosity and he has found this to be true; his appetitie has returned. So, he thinks, why can't Iell simply find a good barber and leave, herself?
But Alas, Iell's situation is more complicated. She has a secret, something she doesn't willingly share with Bartholovew, but when he finds out what it is, he suddenly sees the difference between them. Bartholomew's thinness was caused by an emotional reaction to something in his past that he is finally overcoming. Iell can change nothing. At this point, he realizes two things: that he is the gaff, and that he cannot help Iell, nor does she want him to.
If this story had ended badly for Bartholomew, I might draw parallels to the Garden of Eden story, but in this tale, a young man partakes of the obscure root, comes to see things as they really are, and it's a good thing. He's been living like a caged animal and being treated like a child. It's time to come to terms with the past, grow up, and move on. And he does, Bartholomew takes himself, his bird, and his savings, and he walks out of that museum, forever.
This story was a very engaging read and the characters who peopled Barnum's museum were well-drawn and sympathetic. The Barnums, Phineas and his wife, were presented as a strange, dueling couple who could both be ruthless business people.
There may be many novels about the blossoming of people's lives, but this one is novel. I think most of us can't help but to be a little curious about the people whose livelihoods involved being regarded as "freaks." In these pages, a few of them come alive for us.
Henry Holt Company